Survivors of the 2015 terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in Paris have described their fear and panic when they were held hostage in a corridor for more than two hours by two gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing explosive vests.
Three witnesses – one a 23-year-old barman at the time of the attack and two IT workers who were in their 30s – told France’s biggest ever criminal trial how they were among 11 people first forced to watch as the gunmen took pleasure in targeting and shooting concertgoers from a balcony, and then taken to a narrow upstairs corridor and used as human shields.
A total of 130 people were killed and more than 400 injured in synchronised suicide bombings and mass shootings across the French capital on Friday 13 November 2015, attacks that were claimed by Islamic State.
The killing began at about 9pm when a suicide bomber blew himself up after failing to get into the Stade de France for a France v Germany football match. Then came drive-by shootings and suicide bombings at cafes and restaurants. Finally, three gunmen entered the Bataclan during an Eagles of Death Metal gig, killing 90 people.
On Tuesday a Paris court heard how scores of people in the pit in front of the stage at the gig were gunned down while some in the balcony seats tried to hide or escape.
David Fritz-Goeppinger, who has dual Chilean and French nationality, was 23 and at the concert on a rare night off from his bar job. His hobby was playing realistic video games and he immediately recognised the sound of gunshots as the attackers burst in, while others thought it was just fireworks. He described a horrific scene of slaughter as a wave of spectators fell to the ground “on top of each other, bullets in bodies and people dying”.
He recalled trying to escape into an upstairs room and climbing out of a high window, dangling dangerously over the street below clutching a metal pipe in a ventilation vent with one hand and trying to call the emergency services with the other.
“I heard a woman inside shouting: ‘I’m pregnant, can I jump out of the window?’ That was when I understood the full scale of distress,” he said. The woman did climb out of the window where she hung from her fingertips calling for help. A man who had been dangling beside Fritz-Goeppinger managed to clamber back inside and pull in the woman. She fled the room and would survive the attack.
Fritz-Geoppinger described how two gunmen then burst into the room, spotted him and ordered him back on to the balcony seats. Eleven people – eight men and three women – were forced to sit in the red velvet seats where, “in a surrealist scene,” he said, one of the terrorists stood with his foot on the railing “having fun” as he shot down at anyone who made the slightest movement in the pile of bodies on the ground floor.
“We sat having to watch the assassination of several people without being able to do anything, while he enjoyed it. The gunman then told us: ‘The first person who moves, or doesn’t do what I say, gets shot in the head. Is that clear or do you want an example?’ Those words will stay in my head forever.”
At this point, Fritz-Goeppinger said, the third gunman, who was on the venue’s stage, was shot by a lone police officer and his suicide vest exploded.
Grégory, an IT worker who was at the gig for his birthday and was among the balcony hostages, recalled thinking: “OK, today’s the day I’m going to die and I’m going to be murdered. I thought of my flat and whether it was tidy so my parents wouldn’t have too much work clearing it.”
The two remaining gunmen, dressed in jogging pants, had said they were there for revenge against the then president François Hollande’s military action against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Swiftly, the hostages were moved to a narrow corridor and made to stand in front of windows as human shields.
The witnesses told the court that the gunmen appeared stressed and as if they were improvising. At one point they shot out of the window at people in the street below and the building opposite.
The group of 11 were held in the corridor for more than two hours while the gunmen were in contact with police negotiators using hostages’ mobile phones. Grégory described how one of the gunmen complained that his hearing had been damaged in the attack and kept asking him to loudly describe what he could hear behind the closed door.
“I told him I could hear injured people moaning and calling for help,” he said, to which he said the gunman replied: “That’s what our women and children are living in Syria and Iraq.”
The gunmen tried unsuccessfully to call TV news stations, and just after midnight police launched an assault, shooting one gunman as another blew himself up in a stairwell. All of the hostages survived.
Two of the witnesses told the court that police leading them out of the building past the piles of dead bodies in the concert hall told them not to look. Both men looked. “I realised that people that I had seen dancing earlier that night were now corpses,” Fritz-Goeppinger said.
The trial continues and is expected to last until May 2022.